Ecology in the time of global economic crisis
By Op Rana (China Daily)
Updated: 2009-05-15 09:23

Ecology in the time of global economic crisis

A "failed system" is how John Bellamy Foster describes capitalism in his presentation to the International Conference on the Critique of Capitalism in the Era of Globalization, held at Suzhou University in Jiangsu province in January.

Foster says that by "a failed system I do not of course mean that capitalism as a system is in any sense at an end". What he means by a failed system is that capitalism as a global economic and social order "increasingly exhibits fatal contradiction between reality and reason - to the point, in our time, where it threatens not only human welfare, but also the continuation of most sentient forms of life on the planet".

Foster is professor of sociology at the University of Oregon, US, and editor of neo-Marxist magazine Monthly Review. But he is also known for his seminal work on Marx's writings on the environment: Marx's Ecology: Materialism and Nature. And it's ecology, he said in his paper at the Suzhou conference, that faces the greatest threat from financialization of capital. It's this part of his paper that deserves special attention.

We all know the haste of govern-ments across the world have shown in rescuing the global economy by injecting hundreds of billions of dollars is in stark contrast to their response to environmental crisis. The economic crisis in no way signals the end of the world; at best it signals the end of an economic and social order.

In fact, the "slowdown of the (global) capitalist economy may help temporarily to check some of the increasing burden on the biosphere by reducing the rate of growth of the overall consumption of energy and materials". But the deteriorating state of the environment, if left unchecked, could end the world, as we know it.

As Marx said: "Man lives from nature, i.e. nature is his body, and he must maintain a continuing dialogue with it if he is not to die." This dialogue is threatening to break down. But what can we expect in response from the existing world order? The global capitalist order will certainly not try to save the environment. Instead, to quote Foster, "the usual response to economic crisis within capitalism is to remove protections previously applied to workers and the environment". Therefore, "the economic decline is likely to result in more intensive forms of ecological exploitation".

Ecology in the time of global economic crisis

Foster cites Marx to prove his point. Marx said that by shipping food and fiber hundreds and even thousands of miles to new urban centers, industrialized capitalist agriculture was in fact depleting the soil of basic nutrients that were no longer re-circulated to the earth. That created a major crisis of the soil in the US and Europe in the 19th century.

It's the solution capitalism provided to the soil crisis that exposes its anti-ecology nature. Capitalism developed synthetic fertilizers that marked the beginning of modern agro-business. Those fertilizers were to become a major source of global warming because of the dangerously high amounts of petroleum they used. Capitalism's solution to the world agricultural problem, says Foster, has resulted in further polarization of wealth and hunger.

Global capitalism's response to the economic crisis could, and in all likelihood would, be similar to that in the 19th century, given the omnipotence of establishment economists in the decision-making process. Should we wait for another dose of slow-death vaccine from capitalism in the form of technological solutions to the economic problem? Or, should countries that have the capability to respond differently to the crisis act now?

No country is better equipped to offer a more environment friendly response to the crisis than China. And the world, especially the poor and the needy, wait for it to take up the cudgels on its behalf.

E-mail: oprana@hotmail.com

(China Daily 05/15/2009 page8)